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Nouwen: The Lost Art of Hospitality

4 June 2008

This morning we welcome a guest blogger, a close friend of mine, who has kindly permitted me to post a marvelous article of his.  (I owe my enrollment in the ACU Graduate School of Theology – a tremendous blessing, as it turns out – to his urging and counsel.)  Enjoy.

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When was the last time you received genuine hospitality?  No, I’m not talking about good service at a hotel, or a very nice reception at one of our local restaurants, but the kind of hospitality that has been commonly considered – at least of late – as a lost blessing.  It is the kind of hospitality difficult to describe unless you’ve been on the receiving end of it.   Simply put, this kind of hospitality not only “makes space” for others but welcomes the opportunity.  Given our increasingly individualistic society, the absence of this blessing comes as no surprise.  

Earlier this year, I asked my students why sending a text message over their cell phone was so popular.  It’s a really good question when you think about it.  Why go to all the trouble of typing out a message when – with the same machine – you could just as easily type seven numbers and tell the person directly?  The answer I got from my students was almost shocking.  It was about control.  They told me that sending a text message or receiving a text message gave them a greater sense of control over the conversation.  In other words, in the opinion of these students, texting had become another means of exacting control over information, relationships, and others.  Texting, for them, is another barrier for privacy and individualism – precisely the things that hinder true expressions of hospitality.

[It is helpful to consider] Henri Nouwen’s idea of “polarities” in the lives of believers.  Moving from “loneliness to solitude,” Christians become more aware of God’s presence and are less likely to be driven by the need for the approval of others.  Instead, those relationships are viewed as blessing for which to be thankful even when that person is far away.  The second polarity asks the believer to move from “hostility to hospitality.”  In other words, just as we now see ourselves as friends of God, we extend this friendship to others.  We convert our hostilities toward others into an open and hospitable “space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”  If this sounds difficult, it can be.  But when we look at the way Jesus invited others to himself we quickly discover that hospitality should be part of who we are as His followers.  I think of the way Jesus embraced Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and others who were in such need of love and care from others.  They found genuine care and friendship in Jesus.  I think one of the greatest challenges of our time as followers of Christ is to remain open to others – inviting them to be a part of our lives. To be willing to invite strangers in this way – offering genuine friendship – goes counter to our culture’s increasingly individualistic lifestyle.  The more individualistic our society becomes, the more intentional Christians will need to be in order to foster the genuine relationships indicative of the people of God.  When Jesus-followers practice real hospitality, I’m convinced they will get noticed and will be blessed because of it.

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